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Andy Katz | Correspondent | May 3, 2018

Mississippi St. eyes return to tournament as top scorers return

2018 One Shining Moment

No school may have benefited more so far from players returning to school more than Mississippi State.

OK, so it’s way early since the deadline is May 30 and players like potential preseason All-American and Player of the Year candidate Carsen Edwards of Purdue still have to make their decisions.

Still, the Bulldogs could have dropped from a preseason Top 25 team and NCAA tournament contender in 2019 to facing a major rebuild — again.

Now, the easy counter is that Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Aric Holman and Lamar Peters had no choice. They weren’t locks to be drafted — at all. So why not return? Well, we’re in an era when nothing is a certainty and no coach can take a player’s decision to stay in school, let alone opt to return to the same school and not transfer, for granted.

The decisions by all four — en masse — this past week means MSU coach Ben Howland has as much optimism as he has had since arriving in Starkville in 2015.

“I wasn’t sure,’’ said Howland about what the four would do. “You just never know.’’

Howland said the four listened and clearly got sound advice. The 2019 NBA draft won’t be littered with as many can’t-miss freshmen. And while Howland is a proponent of the Commission on College Basketball’s recommendation to allow players to go through the NBA draft and still return, he didn’t have to worry about that this season. Howland is also a fan of what the NBA allows international players to do — get drafted and have that team retain their rights when they stash them back overseas. He would like to see American players have that same option of being drafted, have their rights be retained by the team and then return to school to finish playing. But that’s an NBA decision for another day.

What the move by the four returning Bulldogs means is that Mississippi State should be in the mix in the SEC for a tournament bid and finish somewhere in the upper half of the conference after coming one or two games shy of a bid this past season.

“We’ve got momentum going into next year,’’ said Howland. “Everyone feels it. People are excited about next season.’’

Howland took it one step further.

“I’ve never been more thrilled at this time of the year going into the next season as I am right now,’’ said Howland. “I’m really excited.’’

Howland points to two games that could have turned the Bulldogs into an NCAA tournament team last season, losing 89-85 at Missouri and then four days later by one point, 81-80, at Vanderbilt.

“We win those two games then we’re 11-7 instead of 9-9 in the SEC,’’ said Howland. “Part of the complaint against us was our non-conference schedule wasn’t strong enough. We’re going to rectify that. We’ve got an incredibly difficult schedule in place. A huge piece of the committee in choosing teams for the NCAA tournament is the schedule.’’

He’s right. The Bulldogs bombed in non-conference scheduling last season, playing one game against an NCAA tournament team from a major conference. The Bulldogs lost that one — at Cincinnati.

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Howland said the Bulldogs are in a tournament in Las Vegas with Arizona State, NC State and Utah State. Mississippi State gets Cincinnati back at home, plays at Dayton, BYU at home and Wright State in a neutral site game in Jackson, Miss.

The Bulldogs are also working on a securing a neutral-site game in New Jersey. The opponent could end up being Loyola Chicago, which would be a rematch of the 1963 national championship game, dubbed the Game of Change, between the two schools. The deal isn’t done yet but would be a no-brainer. Loyola Chicago coach Porter Moser said the Ramblers would bring Sister Jean! Seriously, the two programs do have immense history. But this would also be a high-quality game between a program that went to the Final Four in April and will be the Missouri Valley favorite and likely NCAA tournament team again with three key starters back, and a Bulldogs team that should be in the field, as well.

And why is there so much optimism?

Well, Quinndary Weatherspoon has scored over 1,300 points for the Bulldogs. His brother, Nick, was a stud as a freshmen for the Bulldogs. Holman has 144 blocks in his career. And Peters was a star in the team's NIT run to New York with 14 assists against Nebraska and 10 against Baylor. “The experience of the NIT really helped us,’’ said Howland.

Howland rattled off the four achievements, saying:

  • “Nick Weatherspoon took the second-most charges as a freshman and is the team’s best defender. He’s a tough, hard-nosed player who is only going to get better on the offensive end.”
  • “Quinndary will have a great senior year.”
  • “You can’t stay in front of (Peters).’’
  • “Holman got interest from NBA teams because of his blocking shots, ability to stretch the floor and hit 3s. NBA guys love his athleticism and length.’’

Oh, and there’s more love for this squad.

He was fawning over the improvement of 6-11 rising sophomore Abdul Ado, the shooting of Tyson Carter, and the impact of incoming players 6-6 Robert Woodard (“immediate impact”), 6-9 Reggie Perry (“Incredible skill, size and strength), and 6-6 DJ Stewart (“another good, athletic player).’’

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The whole crew will be in Starkville this summer to begin the journey to make this a team that can nudge Kentucky, Tennessee, and everyone else (we could go on with the long list of contenders again) in the SEC.

Look, Howland’s decision to leave his comfortable post-UCLA life in Santa Barbara and come to Starkville was a stunner at the time. He had no ties to the deep South after coaching out West and then at Pitt before going back to California, where the Bruins made three straight Final Four runs during his 10 years in Westwood.

But the timing was right in his life. His two children are grown, and while being away from them and his two grandchildren in California can be tough at times for him and his wife, the quick connection to a direct flight from Atlanta to LA has eased any issue.

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The goal was to take Mississippi State to the NCAA tournament. This team has improved each season from 14-17 to 16-16 to 25-12 and a trip to the NIT semifinals. The Bulldogs withstood the departure Malik Newman, who lasted one season before going to Kansas and is now off to the NBA draft. The idea was to build a program, not just a team. Having the same assistants — George Brooks, Korey McCray, Ernie Zeigler and Michael Moynihan — is also an underappreciated aspect to the rise of this program.

The return of four key players gives Mississippi State the necessary upperclassmen needed to win at a high level now, just look at teams that have recently had great success deep in the NCAA tournament.

“It was hard work rebuilding a program from scratch,’’ said Howland. “We are now reaping the benefits.’’

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